How the Second World War led to the longest peace in Europe

29 November 2017

How the Second World War led to the longest peace in Europe

War punctuates human history with a monotonous regularity. Although typically terrifying and tragic to those who live, die and fight through wars, great things can grow from these seemingly inevitable conflicts.

The English Civil War (1642–49) and Glorious Revolution (1688–89) laid the groundwork for modern democracy, while the American and French Revolutions (1775–83 and 1789–99 respectively) made substantial contributions to the development of what are today recognised as fundamental human rights. In more general terms, the vast empires established by conquest throughout history have aided the spread of ideas, albeit usually at the expense of native populations. War, while bad, can lead to good or at least useful results.

Since the end of the Second World War, Western and Central Europe has experienced the longest period of peace in the region. It has been more than 70 years since any significant conflict has occurred within that region. Of course, there have been scuffles and internal conflicts, but these have tended to be highly localised and resulted in few casualties — The Troubles in Ireland (and associated IRA activity before and after that period), the Cod Wars between Iceland and the United Kingdom, West Germany and Belgium, the Year of Lead in Italy, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, and so on.

Perhaps Europe needed the Second World War to finally emphasise the need for lasting peace.

The First World War was an inevitable conflict. The alliances built up in Europe as well as the conflicting colonial aspirations of the Great Powers had created a tinderbox, and it was not a matter of “if” but “when” it would be ignited. After four years of fighting “the war to end all wars” and with 10 million fatalities, the Central Powers were defeated in 1918. The peace treaties between the Allied Powers and Germany after the war crippled Germany’s military, economy and national spirit.

At this point, history books begin to detail the instability in Germany after the war and the rise of fascism. It is sufficient for our purposes to acknowledge that the Second World War was inevitable for a variety of reasons, most of which were linked to the terms of the post-WWI peace treaties and poor foreign policy decisions in the interim between the wars. The Second World War was truly global: the conflict spread to every continent and resulted in some 55 million fatalities worldwide.

The combination of circumstances after the Second World War were different to those after the First World War, but the victors were also acutely aware that the previous approach had failed. A new approach had to be taken to ensure a more lasting peace, or at least a limitation of the destruction. The First and Second World Wars had together killed more people than the current population of either France or the United Kingdom.

After the War, Europe lay in ruins. Not only did Europe need to rebuild, it needed to make sure that reconstruction wouldn’t be for nothing. There were two important developments on these points.

Under the European Recovery Program, also called the “Marshall Plan” after US Secretary of State George Marshall, billions of dollars were funnelled into reconstructing Europe by the American Government. Although largely driven by the United States’ desire to encourage the re-establishment of functioning free market economies, the American grants to Europe were contingent upon the cooperation of the European states in distributing the aid, and them progressively abolishing trade barriers.

The result was the Committee of European Economic Cooperation, later replaced by the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), and then the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — the OECD of today. The OEEC involved most of Western and Central Europe, as well as Greece, Turkey and Iceland. The result was an increase in greater cooperation through the establishment of additional organisations, the stabilisation of economies, greater inter-governmental planning, and the realisation that a common market was key to rebuilding European economies.

The punitive approach to peace after the First World War had demonstrably failed, but Germany had to be reconciled with the rest of Europe in some way. While taking the advice of Winston Churchill, who spoke about a partnership between France and Germany being the foundation for a new family of European nations, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Robert Schuman, perceived that Germany could rise and threaten European stability again.

Schuman sought a way to increase economic integration and achieve long-term stability in Europe. Conventional warfare relied on two commodities: coal and steel. Building on proposals of Jean Monnet (“the Father of Europe”) Schuman devised a plan to place these commodities under the control of a supranational organisation. The Schuman Plan was met with enthusiasm in West Germany, perceived by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as an opportunity to improve the international standing of West Germany.

Together with Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, France and West Germany formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 (commencing operation in 1952) to implement the Schuman Plan, and by 1954 trade barriers in coal, steel and related products between ECSC members had been eliminated. The ECSC has since ceased to exist (after 50 years of operation), but it has had a lasting effect on European integration.

Inspired by the success of the ECSC, its members continued to pursue the notion of a united Europe, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) in 1957 (commencing operation in 1958). Although Euratom has remained separate and, to a large extent, irrelevant, the European Communities together laid the groundwork for the European Union, which has since superseded both the ECSC and EEC.

The result of these developments, which ultimately led to the European Union, has been to put an end to war in Europe. Although the long-term effects are yet to be seen, especially as the European Union has greatly expanded in the last 30 years, for more than 70 years there has been peace between those countries that embraced cooperation and integration despite their histories of intense and bloody war.

For Europe, war had been a normal part of international relations for centuries. Despite the unprecedented death and destruction of the First World War, the post-war approach was virtually no different, making another far worse war inevitable. The failure of interwar policies to build harmony between the great powers of Europe, encourage economic growth and discourage militarism could only lead to another major conflict.

The Second World War was undoubtedly a turning point for Europe — from near-constant war to ostensible lasting peace — and may well be “the war to end all wars” that the First World War was not.